A flood of demands for speedy trials have been coming into the court since the passing of Hurricane Michael, creating a bubble fit to burst come the first trial week in January. Concerns loom not only about the ability of presumptive jurors to receive summons and physically get to the courthouse but also about the amount of attorneys available to try all the cases.

PANAMA CITY — As Jerome Roulhac Jr. recently stood shackled in court in the black and white striped jumper of an inmate, he asked a judge for something owed to anyone accused of a crime.

His day in court.

Roulhac, 35, has disputed the charge of attempted murder against him since being arrested in connection with a May shooting on Natalie Court. Three witnesses identified Roulhac as the man who fired a single shot from a .25-caliber pistol in the direction of another man. So Roulhac demanded prosecutors summon a jury of his peers and bring his accusers before him for a speedy trial at the earliest date possible, which fell on Oct. 22.

Then Hurricane Michael sawed through several counties within the 14th Judicial Circuit and left the people and their criminal justice system temporarily tattered.

Since many courts reopened at the end of October, Roulhac has been one of numerous defendants to go before a judge to demand either a speedy trail or release from custody as required by state law. However, many local judges have had to tell them that the system just hasn’t recovered enough yet to give them their day in court.

“Our concern is that many people are out of their customary abode and would have an issue receiving court summons,” said Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet. “I expect that’s going to be an issue not only just for jurors but also for witnesses.”

A flood of demands for speedy trials have been coming into the court since the passing of Hurricane Michael, creating a bubble fit to burst come the first trial week in January. Concerns loom not only about the ability of presumptive jurors to receive summons and physically get to the courthouse but also about the amount of attorneys available to try all the cases.

Some officials attribute the surge in demands for speedy trials to inmates who consider themselves “jailhouse attorneys,” attempting to pounce on a vulnerable State Attorney’s Office. Some simply say they’re exercising their constitutional rights.

Either way, officials in each branch of the criminal justice system say they are working together to alleviate the mounting pressure dictated by procedural deadlines.

“Everybody is working toward resolving the number of cases – especially those waiting in jail,” Overstreet said. “It hurts if you’re sitting in jail, and it hurts if you’re a victim waiting for justice. It is what it is, and I don’t know what else we can do.”

Time standards relaxed

Since Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle, some time standards for court proceedings have been relaxed. The Florida Supreme Court recognized issues on the horizon for the justice system in the storm’s wake. Chief Justice Charles Canaday recently issued an administrative order, suspending time limits for speedy trial procedures from Oct. 8 to Oct. 29, allowing an extension of time “equal to the number of days stated herein,” the order stated.

It essentially gave the criminal justice system 21 days to get back on track before the standards would rigidly go back into place. And with those standards, a crowded docket or absent jurors would be no excuse to further delay a trial, Overstreet said.

In Roulhac’s case, his defense attorney demanded his release from jail. He argued that even with the grace period provided by the Supreme Court, Roulhac was still beyond the deadline for his rightful day in court.

What the State Attorney’s Office has been doing in those instances is file a motion to extend the speedy trial period due to exceptional circumstances. In each of the motions, prosecutors cite post-storm conditions and express a desire to preserve the right to a speedy trial but “not a speedy discharge,” court records stated.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Larry Basford said that the system was constructed with flexibility in mind. And for defendants simply trying to use the system post-Hurricane Michael to their advantage, there are ways to make sure justice is served.

“The rules of criminal procedure that guarantee a defendant the right to a speedy trial also take into account that there are sometimes exceptional circumstances that justify the extension of the speedy trial period,” Basford said. “For instance, the unavailability of a witness has been recognized as a reason to continue a trial for a period of time until that witness becomes available. We would like each case adjudicated based on the merits of the case, not some tactical advantage.”

Public Defender Mark Sims said that while some defendants might see an advantage to forcing a trial, it could backfire in this instance because their witnesses may be unavailable. He also said his attorneys are put in a difficult position by defendants’ desire to seize the moment. On one hand, they represent their interests; but on the other, they could face a variety of sanctions — up to Florida Bar admonishment — if discovered acting in subterfuge.

“If they’re using it as a play, it puts you in a precarious situation,” Sims said. “There is a rule that we have to have candor with the court. Also if you lie to a judge, they won’t be quick to forget it.”

Increased caseload

In 2016 and 2017, the courts of the 14th Judicial Circuit tried an average of 60 cases. Before the storm this year, that number had already leapt to 80 trials. The number was such that retired judges were coming into the circuit to preside over cases, Overstreet said, but the concern now has broadened to the amount of attorneys available to put on a prosecution or defense.

“If these cases don’t settle, they got to go to trial,” Overstreet said. “And there are not enough prosecutors and public defenders to move these cases any faster than we’re going right now.”

Judges have been traveling to the jail to meet personally with defendants held on low-level offenses to see if they want to plead directly with the court to time served. They’ve also been meeting with prosecutors and public defenders to reveal what a sentence might entail for an open plea to the court in more serious, prison-deserving crimes to progress those cases.

Leaders of the SAO, the Public Defender’s Office, and the judges of the 14th Judicial Circuit, have also been meeting to discuss solutions for the lack of attorneys in the area. Some outside jurisdictions have offered to help; but like every other organization seeking employees in the storm-ravaged areas, housing is an issue.

Basford said two employees at the SAO were displaced because they could not find homes in the storm’s wake. Despite those two vacancies, he said the office has a deep enough bench to handle the coming workloads.

“Other circuits have asked to send help,” Basford said. “We had to say thank you, but we have enough. The problem is housing. It’s difficult enough to make sure people in our office have housing.”

Sims, too, said that he has received offers of help from offices in other areas. With the case loads his attorneys already face though, he said his office could be amenable to the help if housing is possible.

“If we really need to move that way, we could bring in attorneys from other circuits,” Sims said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t get there.”

Alternatives

In the several cases that have already been set for the first trial week since the storm in January, there is another route the courts can take to relieve trial demands from defendants only trying to take advantage of the system in a vulnerable state.

Overstreet said that if a defendant is pressuring the court to move forward, a judge can step in to make sure that a case is properly presented to a jury. He said that simply selecting jurors fills the requirements demanded by speedy trial. Then the actual presentation of evidence to a jury can be postponed for some time until a case is formed.

“The thing about that is you meet the requirement not by concluding a trial but by selecting a jury,” Overstreet said. “I’ve had lawyers in the past demanding speedy trials in haste. I’ve sat a jury and met the requirement.”

While officials have options to temporarily remedy the attempts by some violent offenders who work the system in their favor, concerns about the availability of a jury pool remain.

Amid the rubble and wreckage of homes, issues of receiving a summons to serve on a jury are obvious. Many potential jurors left the circuit entirely. The grinding daily traffic created by visiting workers and displaced people — if the storm left them with a vehicle — makes the trek to the courthouse a difficult task. On top of that, people’s lives were left in shambles.

“People are suffering right now,” Sims said. “It would be hard to sit on a jury.”

Overstreet said that his main concern as January approaches is that the court will get a low return on jury summons — lower than the already bleak response. However, he was optimistic the spirit of civil service will prevail in Hurricane Michael’s wake and the American criminal justice system will continue, as it has for the past 200 years.

“It’s a tough time for everyone,” he said. “Nothing is going to be simple for anyone. These are unusual circumstances that we’re trying to give the usual fix.”